Hell ranks high on the list of great gaming destinations, just behind WWII and outer space. Yes, ever since Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, humans have been obsessed with imagining Hell and interpretations of the underworld, from the terrifying to the laughable, have popped up throughout pop culture.
As a setting for video games, Hell just makes sense. Designers can get crazy with the nightmare imagery and the setting provides an endless supply of enemies. Not only that, you can dispense with a crisis of conscience over killing virtual enemies by labeling them all “demons.” Players will never feel bad about killing someone in Hell.
But some video games provide more memorable trips to Hell and the underworld than others. These versions of video game Hell transcend tired tropes of fire and brimstone and establish truly terrifying and unique depictions of a place we never want to see in real life.
For more than a decade the Doom series has stuck to one constant: unleashing Hell. No matter the setting or the set-up, Doomguy always ventures into Hell to find the source of evil, and boy does he find it.
Doom’s version of Hell has always felt like walking into the cover of a vintage heavy metal album. It’s dark, foreboding and overrun with hordes of demons waiting to kill you. The ground is littered with bones and viscera, buildings and structures are built out of dark, volcanic rock and the laws of gravity don’t always seem to apply. And behind the dark, smoking landscape lurk creatures ranging from menacing red devils to abominations built out of crude combinations of rotting flesh and steel.
Throughout the series, these demons invade Mars and Earth, turning the Solar System into a version of Hell. But Doomguy’s various trips to Hell make one thing clear: there’s no replacement for the original.
Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy features one of the very first in-depth depictions of the Christian Hell. The epic poem has influenced poets and writers for centuries and in 2010 that legacy extended to video games. Visceral Games’ Dante’s Inferno video game took hell head-on. While the game was largely disappointing, it’s depiction of the Nine Circles of Hell captured the pure horror of Dante’s original work.
Endless horrors await Dante as he journeys through Hell to save his lover, Beatrice, and each evil encounter correspond to some kind of sin. Un-baptised babies are mutated into blade-wielding monstrosities. Sinners punished for gluttony become the embodiment of their sin, ballooned into obese creatures with jaws for hands. The warped and mutilated humans makes this version of Hell all the more disturbing. As a game Dante’s Inferno is pretty forgettable. However, its uniquely twisted version of Hell is the stuff of nightmares.
Kratos has ventured to the Greek underworld enough times to call it a second home. Every game in the God Of War series sends Kratos down to Hades’ realm of the dead and each time it’s a challenge to escape. God of War’s underworld, a riff on Greek mythology, is littered with fiery minotaurs and harpies, plus the three-headed dog Cerberus (who Kratos of course lets loose).
Even if you don’t know the difference between Zeus and Hades this version of the underworld is epic as hell. It’s more than just a fiery hellscape (although that’s in here too). The vistas are desolate with classic Greek architecture that draws the eye and the ominous River Styx rages across the background. Kratos might always want to get out of the underworld, but these levels are interesting enough that gamers can’t wait to go back.
Hell can be a state of mind. That's the setting in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which places gamers in the mind of Senua, a Celtic warrior suffering with psychosis during a journey into Norse Hel to save the soul of her lover. Because of her psychosis, it’s often hard to tell if what we as players are seeing is real, but it’s all real to Senua.
Senua’s hell is a personal one. The demons she’s fighting are her own and the nightmarish imagery reflects her fears. Hellblade tries to prove how difficult and isolating a life with psychosis and mental illness can be, and in doing that it produces one of the more vivid versions of Hell in a video game.